Last week, the Department for Education released a new plan for improving social mobility through education: ‘Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential’.
With a partial focus on the disparity of educational outcomes across the country, we are glad to see the DfE address that areas of the UK are really struggling. Last year, we put together a report on coastal schools and what was needed to bring results there up in line with the rest of the country, and this year we have been offering free safeguarding workshops across areas that are regularly high up in the league tables for child protection issues and persistent absence. We have also developed a free Membership service to support schools to meet the growing demands on their staff time and resources, and for those who may not have the budget to employ an SHS Practitioner. With one of its features being an online forum that gives members the opportunity to get guidance from our network of expert practitioners, we hope this can go some way to supporting staff in more isolated and/or struggling areas.
The plan also included other challenges and ambitions relating to our work.
Ambition 1: Close the ‘word gap’ in the early years
“One of the biggest influences on a child’s early development is what happens in the home. And in supporting this, it is what parents and carers do that is more important than who they are. But disadvantaged children are less likely to experience a home environment that can best support their early development, particularly with regard to early language.”
In 2003, Professor Charles Desforges at the University of Exeter published a paper showing the importance of parental engagement with a child’s education. He found that parental engagement has a significant positive effect on children’s achievement, with impact being much greater than differences associated with variations such as the quality of schools.We agree with both Desforges’ findings and the conclusion drawn by the DfE, which is why we have developed Ready for School workshops. These workshops ideally take place before a child starts nursery or primary school and improve parental engagement with education, giving disadvantaged families the tools they need to support school and home learning. Ready for School can also increase take-up of provision in challenging areas and by less advantaged families – another of the Government’s challenges laid out in the report – by educating parents about how and why take-up can make their lives easier and improve the outcomes of their children.
Ambition 2: Close the attainment gap in school while continuing to raise standards for all
“…schools in more challenging areas can find it harder to recruit and retain high quality teachers and leaders, often facing greater challenges with behaviour management and workload.”
‘Unlocking Talent’ rightly highlights development and support as being vital for teacher recruitment and retention. If teachers are trained in the most efficient, effective ways to respond to and resolve problems, less time will be needed to get to the root of pupils’ issues. This is why, in addition to our school practitioner service, we also include training as part of the work we can offer schools. For staff who are confident with their level of training but who require proper supervision, this is something we also support schools with. In a review of early help services in England, Ofsted found that “overall, there were significant weakness in the quality and focus of supervision and management oversight of early help cases.” During supervision, teachers not only receive 1-2-1 advice on safeguarding issues and behaviour management but they also get vital mental health support and someone to ensure correct boundaries are in place: all of which are crucial for keeping teachers and pupils safe, supported and happy.
“My supervisor helped me to make vital decisions last year, whilst supporting me with some difficult issues. Her direct, friendly and supportive nature was just what I needed.” – Michelle Coombs, Highams Park School
In an ideal world, every school could reduce teacher workloads and improve staff retention by taking pastoral responsibilities away from teaching staff, freeing them to focus solely on teaching. These responsibilities could instead be given to highly trained, dedicated experts who could take the time to do things like tracking attendance and punctuality in order to find telling patterns, making home visits, physically picking children up and bringing them to school when necessary, etc. As the plan says, “Disadvantaged pupils of all abilities are more likely to underperform even in otherwise strong areas and strong schools.” However, while the plan says research is required to find out why, we have over three decades of experience working with disadvantaged children – we know why.
Home life has a huge impact on a child’s education and social mobility. A hungry child will struggle to concentrate in class no matter how good their teacher is, and a teenager who is scared to leave their depressed mother alone for the day will not going to prioritise getting into university. What can schools offer to address these issues? Effective pastoral care.
An example of how this works in practice is Lucy’s story. Lucy had not attended school for two full years when she met her SHS Practitioner: she originally left school after major surgery on her ear but ongoing health issues, in addition to the breakdown of the relationship between school and her mum, meant she stopped coming in entirely. After just a few weeks’ work with her practitioner, Lucy was back in school full time with 100% attendance, working towards her GCSEs with hopes of going to college.
These outcomes are impressive, but the work that went into them is more than a teacher could ever be expected to provide. The practitioner spent hours speaking to Laura and her mother in their home and over the phone to reassure them, physically accompanying Laura to medical appointments and to school, setting up meetings with other professionals, etc. This work requires building strong, trusting relationships with parents so that they feel confident in disclosing issues, and a good working knowledge of issues such as housing, benefits, domestic abuse, etc. Parents and children need to be brought together to develop action plans, with agreed tasks and outcomes, ensuring all are committed to making changes. This work is both challenging and time-consuming and the impact of interventions will be reduced if the staff responsible for working with families do not receive the appropriate time required for tasks as well as support, including effective training and supervision.
Ambition 4: Everyone achieving their potential in rewarding careers
It is widely acknowledged that children who grow up in more affluent families benefit from their parents’ connections, knowledge of employment opportunities and high aspirations for their children. The report rightly encourages “collaborating with businesses large and small to widen opportunity, and drive up local skills and productivity” but this can be tied into both parental engagement and early intervention. First, schools should look at how they can include parents in their aspiration and career sessions, so that parents have more knowledge and confidence to encourage their children and give them advice on important choices on further education and employment options. Second, they should begin careers discussion much earlier.
Over the past few years, we have taken groups of children (usually around 9 and 10 years old) and parents to ‘aspiration sessions’. These consist of bringing the groups to different offices introducing them to the huge variety of job roles available, as well as the different routes to employment. The sessions help families to realise they can break intergenerational cycles of poverty and worklessness, and enter into fulfilling, exciting careers, building up their confidence and ambitions. By hearing from a range of diverse employees, they realise that people with backgrounds like theirs can succeed. As the report says, “Britain will only succeed if we unlock talent and fulfil potential for all, ensuring everyone has the chance to be the best version of themselves.” All children deserve the right to be in school, ready to learn. Some of them just require more support.